Stephen Gentry understood when he arrived at Gonzaga two decades ago as a walk-on he wasn’t going to see much playing time.
Gentry was fine with that because coaching was always in his future playbook. He couldn’t think of a better program to learn the ropes than Gonzaga, which at that time was establishing a foothold on the national landscape.
Turns out Gentry was right: Playing time was scarce during his four seasons as a Zag, but the coaching education he received in addition to his bachelor and master’s degrees put his career objectives in motion.
It took him to the Miami Heat, Texas A&M, Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State, a two-year return to Gonzaga as director of basketball operations and Illinois.
When assistant coach Tommy Lloyd – literally the only person Gentry knew when he first came to GU – was hired last month as head coach at Arizona, it didn’t take long for the Zags to reach out to Gentry.
“It didn’t take much convincing,” Gentry said. “Gonzaga is where my career took off. I’ve always seen Gonzaga as my home base. To come back a third time, I see it as a homecoming.”
It comes after a pair of stints on Brad Underwood’s staff at Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State and the past two seasons at Illinois.
“When I first told Brad about (Gonzaga’s) interest, he was like, ‘Gent, I wasn’t born yesterday, I knew they’d be coming after you,’ ” Gentry said. “Brad reached out to coach (Mark) Few when I left Gonzaga (for Illinois in 2019), which a lot of people don’t do. Coach Few reciprocated that respect and reached out to Brad ahead of time so I thought that was kind of cool.”
Gentry is joining a staff that includes Brian Michaelson. The two were GU walk-ons and roommates in the early to mid 2000s. Michaelson assisted on Gentry’s first basket, a 3-pointer.
Michaelson was in Gentry’s wedding. Gentry wasn’t in Michaelson’s wedding because the ceremony was during basketball season when he was a video coordinator at Texas A&M.
“When he told me he was thinking about getting out of real estate and into coaching (in the late 2000s), I said, ‘Brian, you’d be a terrific coach,’ ” Gentry said. “To see him work his way up and I’ve been working my way up, it’s really cool to go from two walk-ons that hardly played to both of us on that bench together.”
Gentry declined comment when asked if Lloyd contacted him about joining Arizona’s staff. He did say a lot of people were curious about his next move after Lloyd’s name surfaced at Arizona.
“Everyone started asking me, ‘Hey, are you going to Arizona?’ or, ‘Hey, are you going to Gonzaga?’ ” Gentry said. “They’d ask me, ‘Have you talked to Gonzaga?’ I talk to Brian literally every day, call or text, so it’s not unusual to have conversations with them.
“I kept Illinois in the loop. I was respectful to them and they understood what Gonzaga means to me.”
Gentry, 38, and winning have been close companions, dating back to a 107-20 record in four years as a player and a 65-9 mark when he was director of operations in 2018 and 2019. He’s been involved in 12 of the past 14 NCAA Tournaments at his previous stops.
He directed scheme changes at Illinois, some of which had Gonzaga roots, that helped the program climb to No. 8 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings last season.
“Brad gave me more and more responsibility last year to totally take the reigns of the offense and call plays and diagram things up,” Gentry said. “It gave me another level of experience.
“I’ve worked in all areas of the country but more importantly I know the Gonzaga way and I know how coach Few wants to run the program.”
Gentry said Few doesn’t “pigeonhole” assistants into specific roles.
“We’re all expected to coach, scout, recruit,” Gentry said. “I’ve primarily worked with guards in the past and been an offensive-minded coach, but I think my innovativeness and creativity is what they were looking for. The assistants do a little bit of everything, and that helps us grow as coaches.”
Gentry expects to arrive in Spokane on Tuesday. It’s hard to tell who is more excited, Gentry or his family. His son, Gunnar, who was born in Spokane, sleeps with a bunch of stuffed animals, one he calls ‘Spike’ and another ‘Gonzaga.’
“Obviously the Gonzaga program means the world to me,” Gentry said. “I’ve been at a bunch of other places. No offense to any one of them, but it just showed me how special Gonzaga is.”
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